Middle Level Students: The Unified Generation

Help our students with and without intellectual disabilities lead the way to socially inclusive schools

By: Betty Edwards, Leigha Bannon


Exclusion, discrimination, bullying—all are in the headlines on a daily basis, but change is ahead. It is time for an inclusion revolution, and our middle level students can help lead the way by becoming part of a unified generation. Ending discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities, those from different cultures or religions, and those on the fringes of the school community can be accomplished only with the help of our youth leaders.

Research and interactions with young adolescents tell us that they want and need to connect with each other and to make a difference in their world. For example, the research on the characteristics of young adolescents as stated in This We Believe, identifies that young adolescents desire to "make the world a better place and to make a meaningful contribution to a cause or issue larger than themselves." As educators, we just need to provide them the opportunities and necessary support to identify, implement, and share actions for change. Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® provides avenues for youth to take the lead in creating an inclusion revolution.

Inclusive Lunch Table
The Unified Champion Schools program (UCS) is funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education and leads the way to socially inclusive schools, where all students are purposefully integrated into the school and where the abilities and gifts of each student are recognized and celebrated. UCS is composed of three main components—Inclusive Youth Leadership, Unified Sports®, and Whole School Engagement.

Through inclusive youth leadership, students with and without intellectual disabilities learn to work and lead together to advance opportunities for all students to become involved in school activities, to get to know each other, and to create environments of acceptance and tolerance.

Too often we forget the power of youth voice, but the activation of students such as those from Parkland High School in Florida who continue to fight against gun violence reminds us of the impact that youth can have on effecting change and impacting opinions. What we, as adults, have to realize is that schools are the students' domain, and they experience life within the school walls differently than the adults, so we must listen and provide them the support and opportunities to become active citizens. We must provide paths for them to become leaders and active participants during the middle grades if we want them to be thoughtful, responsive, and caring members of society as adults.

Unified Sports provides opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities to play together on the same team, develop skills, and become friends. Whether it's on the basketball court, the track, or a myriad of other sports venues, when students come together to train and to compete; they are not only engaged in healthy activities, they also grow as individuals and members of a team or group. They learn to respect the skills and commitment that each athlete, no matter whether he or she has a disability or not, brings to the sport—and they experience the joys of friendship and the opportunity to represent their school.

The focus expands beyond individual students with whole school engagement where students throughout the school learn to respect others, to help create a positive school climate, and to form a supportive, tolerant environment. Whether students are running a respect campaign, cheering for the Unified Sports teams as "fans in the stands," or decorating the school's halls with posters reflecting inclusion, the entire school benefits; and students become intricately involved in improving the school climate.

Key avenues for change with each of these components point to adult support and include:

  • Educate—Providing high quality opportunities and supports for all students to acquire and enhance knowledge and skills associated with school and life success.
  • Motivate—Creating conditions that engage students and empower them to take a particular action.
  • Activate—Establishing opportunities for students to organize and take action that addresses a community issue or problem.

Notes left on students' lockers.
How does a middle school become a Unified Champion School that strives to be socially inclusive and provides students with the opportunities to become change agents within their school? The Middle Level Playbook offers a wealth of information on the Unified Champion Schools program, how it supports the basic concepts of effective middle level schools, and how UCS can be implemented.

Included are assessments that help school staff members and students identify how socially inclusive their school is so improvement plans can be developed; checklists for implementing inclusive youth leadership, Unified Sports, and whole school engagement; and a variety of resources to assist with the understanding and realization of social inclusion.

The playbook is designed for use by both the adults and students in the school because it is through the intergenerational work that true learning and implementation results. The Middle Level Playbook can be accessed online at https://resources.specialolympics.org/playbook-series/. For additional support and potential funding, school or school district personnel can contact their state's Special Olympics office.

Now, let's provide opportunities for youth to share what they are doing in their schools and communities on a broader stage. In July 2018, www.generationunified.org was released. By using digital media to highlight Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, Special Olympics aims to:

  • DRIVE young people to its new site—www.generationunified.org to encourage students to share ideas.
  • ACTIVATE students through monthly challenges to result in further activation and potential development opportunities.
  • SHARE stories of what students are doing in schools around the country to show how young people are making an impact every day.
  • PROMOTE the three components of Unified Champion Schools in order to recruit more students and schools.

The Generation Unified website gives users an up-close perspective of the revolution of inclusion that is happening in classrooms across the country, especially in middle level classrooms where students are embracing change. New multimedia content on the website offers a glimpse into schools around the United States that implement Unified programming and how it has made significant, positive change in their communities. The website is so youth-driven that focus groups of young people around the country helped contribute to its development!

To promote and highlight inclusion in all aspects of life, www.generationunified.org focuses on three pillars: Playing Unified, Learning Unified, and Living Unified. Whether it is on the playing field, in the classroom, or in everyday life, inclusion empowers individuals with and without disabilities to be leaders together. Within each of these sections of the website, users will find information on how to get involved and see inspirational video content about communities that have already made strides for inclusion in these realms.

Unified Club Activities
It is the hope of Unified Champion Schools that this site will not only be a hub for featuring and highlighting stories of inclusion but will also be an interactive platform for student leaders to create a network of leadership and actively share their stories and ideas with each other. What better way to activate young people than encourage them to empower one another?

The best way to learn more about www.generationunified.org is to experience it—explore the various pages the website has to offer, learn about different programs, and even read about the founder of Special Olympics, the fearless Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Make sure to check out the Unified Generation page which will give middle school students opportunities to engage with Special Olympics and other youth leaders in a plethora of unique challenges that will change every month.

Join the Inclusion Revolution today and visit www.generationunified.org.


Betty Edwards, Ed.D., is chair of the National Education Leaders Network, Unified Champion Schools, Special Olympics.
bedwardsk@aol.com

Leigha Bannon is a resource and communications manager for Unified Champion Schools, Special Olympics.
lbannon@specialolympics.org

Published September 2018.

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